In the words of Thomas Jefferson: “A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” But if you just walk around Paris, you may not necessarily notice some of the tidbits hidden beyond that elegant exterior. Time foer a few Paris facts that even the locals don’t always remember.
Paris may be the capital of France, but as all French people outside of Paris will point out, it is not France. It has its own quirks and fallibilities, that you will not find anywhere else in the country.
As a local living here for 10+ years, some of these have definitely made me go “hmm?”. And so without further ado, here are my best fun facts about Paris (the city in France of course, but more on that later). Allons-y!
The motto of Paris is Fluctuat nec mergitur in latin which means “She is tossed by the waves, but does not sink”. A fitting motto for a city that has seen much upheaval.
2. Roman City of Lutetia
Paris was originally a Roman City called Lutetia. It was not the biggest city in Roman times, that honor went to Lyon, which was then the capital called Lugdunum.
At the time, Paris was rather unimportant, behind Lyon and the port city of Marseille (called Massilia). Little Paris was, at the time, a tiny dot on the map. Literally.
If you wander around the 5th arrondissement and Ile de la Cité within Paris, you can still see the ancient walls and the Arènes de Lutèce.
3. Ancient City Walls
Paris used to be surrounded by walls that gradually expanded (as per the map above). Today it is surrounded by one of the most disliked highways in France, the Boulevard Péripherique. This 6 lane highway completely surrounds the city, cutting it off from its suburbs.
4. Becoming the Cultural Capital
Clovis, the first King of the Franks, makes Paris his capital in 508AD because of its strategic position on the River Seine. However, under King Charlemagne, as the kingdom stretches east to include the area that is now Germany, Paris loses its importance.
It became the main residence of the Kings of France in the 10th century, becoming a major economic powerhouse on the Right Bank, with the trade of wheat, fish and cloth along the river.
A large market called the Marché de Rungis (founded in 1110) used to be in the center of what is today the 2nd arrondissement of Paris. It has now been moved outside the city on the north side. Today, the area is a large mall and metro station known as Chatelet-Les Halles.
On the Left bank were several universities including the Sorbonne, which is why the area is called the Latin Quarter, for the students there studying and speaking in Latin.
5. “Paris is worth a mass”
In the words of King Henri IV “Paris vaut bien une messe“, meaning “Paris is worth a mass.” Protestant Henry uttered these words in 1593 as he was converted to Catholicism.
The move was meant to put an end to the wars of religion between the Catholics in Paris and Protestant Huguenots in the south of France. To secure his capital, Henry IV converted and was able to remain King for over a decade later (until he was assassinated, but that is another story!)
6. Pont Neuf
The oldest bridge in Paris is the Pont Neuf constructed in 1607, which as you would have it, translates as “New Bridge”. (It was built by the aforementioned King Henri IV. You can read more about him and other members of the French royal family here.)
7. Becoming the City of Lights
Paris is called “the City of Lights” because it was the first major city in Europe to install street-lighting under King Louis XIV in 1665. The city was dark and unsafe and thus lantern lighting was installed to make it safer.
It was also one of the first cities to have widespread street lighting by gas in 1820 and later electric lighting in the late 19th century. The City of Lights, indeed.
8. Paris’s near destruction
Paris was meant to be razed to the ground by the Nazis upon the order of Hitler as German forces were retreating, however, the German commandant-in-charge declined to follow the order.
As such the majority of the city survived its 4-year occupation mostly intact. Rocked, but not defeated.
1. Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower was supposed to be temporary. It was built for the 1889 World Fair and was supposed to be dismantled within 20 years. Parisians initially hated it, wondering what this weird metal structure was supposed to be.
There are 1665 steps from bottom to top. In addition, there are 3 restaurants on the floors of the Eiffel Tower, and a small ice skating rink installed in the winter.
Interestingly, the Eiffel tower expands around 15cm (6inches) in the summer heat and contracts in the winter.
Lights go on every evening hourly on the Eiffel Tower, until past midnight. However, it is actually illegal to publish nighttime photos of the Eiffel Tower, as the lighting is considered a copyrighted art installation. You can read more facts about the Eiffel Tower here.
2. Champs Elysées
The Champs Elysées used to be rural countryside until the 17th century. And it was not until the late 18th century when Napoléon III and Baron Haussman completely reconstructed Paris, that the broad tree-lined boulevard that we know today as the fashionable Champs Elysées came into being.
3. Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806, but his defeat by the British meant that he never saw it finished. It was completed in 1836, and become a rallying point for both French and foreign armies.
Along with festivities every 14 Juillet (Bastille Day), famous victory marches around or under the Arc include:
- the Germans in 1871 – Franco-Prussian war
- the French in 1919 – WWI
- the Germans in 1940 – the invasion of France at start of WWII
- French and Allied Forces in 1944-45 – end of WWII
4. Architecture: Haussmannian Buildings
The beauty of Paris certainly lies in its architecture, with its grand boulevards and elegant buildings. Much of it was designed by one architect, Baron Haussmann, under the reign of Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte).
This style of architecture is called Haussmannian, and there were several rules associated with it. From the height of the ceiling, to the moldings and balconies outside, there is a very specific look to it. Parisians hated it, as old neighborhoods all over Paris were destroyed to make way for the new Hausmmanian style that catered to the rich bourgeoisie.
In addition to the look, the French regulations require that residential buildings in Paris cannot be higher than 50m, while commercial buildings no higher than 180m.
With the highway around Paris, this means that Parisians cannot build up nor out. The lack of space for housing, makes Paris one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, as prices and the cost of living go higher and higher.
5. Louvre Museum
Louvre is the most visited museum in the world. The Louvre Museum in Paris is the most visited museum in the world, with around 10 million visitors per year. Despite its size, less than 10% of its treasures are said to be actually on display, including at two satellite museums, the Louvre-Lens and Louvre Abu Dhabi.
(For info, Parisians hated the glass pyramid when it was constructed in the middle. If you are sensing a trend of Parisians hating all new constructions, you would not be wrong!)
The Musée D’Orsay and Centre Pompidou in Paris are also in the top 10 of most visited museums in the world. You can read more cultural facts about Paris and France here.
6. Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral
The most visited attraction however is not the Louvre or the Eiffel tower, but Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral. (This of course was before the 2019 fire, since reconstruction is still going on.) Located in the heart of the city on Ile de la Cité, the cathedral was built between 1163–1345.
It isn’t the oldest church in Paris though, that honor would go to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près which began construction in the 5th century (although the oldest part of the current church dates to 1000AD).
One landmark of Paris that the locals love and hate is the Paris metro. Stretching all across the city, like a labyrinth, construction of the metro begun in 1900, with work continuing as new lines and metro stations are added.
There are so many stations that a dozen or so are listed as as “abandoned” and are no longer served. Used for storage and maintenance, some are even rented out for film sets for productions set in Paris.
Only 3% of the Paris Metro is handicap and stroller friendly, compared to 25% for London and New York metros which are just as old. (So if you are planning to visit Paris with luggage, I recommend taking a taxi from the airport rather than the metro!)
8. The Catacombs of Paris
Catacombes de Paris is a tunnel network beneath the streets of Paris, and the final resting place of over 6 million people.
When old cemeteries and burial grounds dating back to the Franks, Romans, and medieval age started falling apart, the graves were moved here in the late 18th century. During World War 2, the Catacombs were utilized by the French Resistance who required the tunnel system to travel back and forth.
Today, going into the catacombs is banned because people have been known to get lost there. However, there is a portion that is reserved as a museum in the 14th arrondissement that tourists can visit. (Cataphiles, as they are called, also occasionally hold underground parties and other events there.)
9. Michelin Star Restaurants
Paris has 119 Michelin star restaurants in the world, 2nd to Tokyo. The list is compiled by Michelin, the (French) tire company. The initial idea was to provide French people with good eating options when on road trips across France.
You can read more French food facts here.
10. Disneyland Paris
Disneyland Paris is not actually in Paris. It is about 30 minutes from the center of Paris, going east on the RER train in Marne la Vallée. With two large parks, it is the only Disney themepark in Europe. (If you are looking for the French version of Disney, try Parc Asterix instead.)
11. Statue of Liberty in Paris
There are more Statues of Liberty in France than in the U.S. The largest and most famous is on an island in the middle of the Seine and looks towards her sister statue in New York. You can see it while cruising on a Bateau Mouches boat along the Seine or walking along Pont de Grenelle bridge.
In all, there are ten Statues of Liberty in France, 4 of which are in Paris:
- l’île aux Cygnes (the one noted above)
- Jardin du Luxembourg
- Musée d’Orsay
- Musée des Arts et Métiers
There is also the Flame of Liberty next to the Pont de l’Alma, which was given to the French people in 1987 by the International Herald Tribune newspaper, symbolizing the friendship between the French and the Americans. (It is also the place where Princess Diana died, and is now a memorial to her.)
12. Underground Lake below Opéra Garnier
The beautifully ornate opera house at the center of the city has a lake underneath it. When it was constructed in the late 1800s, architect Charles Garnier realized that the ground he wanted to build on was quite swampy.
So he decided to build a concrete liner underneath to block infiltrations. This 10,000-cubic-meter “lake” is today used by the Paris fire brigade for scuba diving training (instead of the Seine river). It is sadly inaccessible to the public.
13. Obelisk at Place de la Concorde
At one end of Rue de Rivoli, in the heart of Paris, stands the Place de la Concorde. It is on this spot that Marie Antoinette and her husband King Louis XIV were guillotined during the French revolution. (It used to be called Place de la Révolution.)
Today, however, you will notice a different type of monument in the center: a giant Egyptian obelisk decorated with hieroglyphics noting the reign of the pharaoh Ramesses II. It was given as a gift in 1829 from Egypt to France, and acts as a sundial.
14. Seine River
And of course we can’t forget that most famous “landmark” the river running through the city: the Seine!
The river is actually a combination of two rivers, the Seine and the Marne. It is believed today that it is actually the Marne tributory that is the larger, and thus should be the name of the river flowing through Paris, but no one wants to change all those maps!
In addition to the Seine and the Marne, there is also a canal running under Paris from the river Ourcq, most notably around Place de la Bastille.
And if you are wondering why you never see anyone swimming in the Seine, it is because the river is not exactly renowned for its healthiness. It is quite polluted and no one dares to take a dip or catch fish from the river.
The mayor of Paris has promised that the city will try to clean the river by the 2024 Olympics in order to hold events on the river, but I doubt locals are going to let their kids bathe in it anytime soon.
Other fun facts
1. Parisgos and Paname
Parisians sometimes refer to themselves as Parigos, which is a bit of slang. The city also have has many nicknames, among them Parigi, which is Italian for Paris, as well as Paname.
The name Paname is believed to have come from a borsalino type hat of Ecuadorian origin, which workers used to wear while building the Panama Canal in South America. It was shown at the Universal Exhibition of 1855 and Parisians found cool and immediately started wearing around town. Close to 200 years later, and the name has still stuck!
2. The Arrondissements
Tourists to Paris don’t realize that Paris is actually divided into 20 arrondissements, each of whom is like a mini-town in itself, with its own mayor and town hall.
Some arrondissements have left-leaning mayors, while others are more right-wing. There is also an overall mayor of Paris, who holds office for 6 years.
3. Paris around the world
There are 38 cities called “Paris” across the world, from Paris, Ontario Canada, to Paris, Denmark. There are 19 towns in the United States alone called Paris.
4. Parisians don’t love Paris
More than 50% of Parisians actually want to leave Paris, according to official polls conducted. Could it be? With all the beautiful buildings, museums, and culture? As well as the smog, pollution, and the transport system? You can read more about the pros and cons of living in Paris, and why all those Parisians are ready to leave here.
5. Streets and Trees
The stereotype of Parisians not cleaning up after their dogs is not quite true these days. And to make sure it remains untrue, the city has cleaners to make sure that streets are power-washed at least once a week, with powerwashing happening more often in the touristic parts of the city.
To keep everything neat and tidy, even the trees in Paris are tracked and counted on an interactive government website, to encourage more greenery in the city. That’s the Paris of the future, for ya!
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